Tools and Tips for Better Online Reading

Reading blogs, emails, websites, PDFs and other online documents is a part of every web worker’s routine. But spending too many of our working hours reading online can be unhealthy for our eyes. Eyestrain and ocular fatigue used to be associated with the computer screens themselves, but the root of the problem is actually incorrect screen settings and poor reading habits. To improve our online reading experience, we only need to have the proper screen settings, tools and habits.

Customize Your Monitor Setup

The easiest thing you can do is to change your screen settings to become more eye-friendly. This document from Cornell University and this guide from Charles Poynton have some suggestions that you can use as a reference. Some of these include placing the monitor 25 to 30 inches from your eyes, matching the screen brightness and contrast to your work area, and tilting the monitor so that the bottom of the screen is a bit closer to you. Here are some additional factors you should consider:

  • Display width. Some people argue that using larger monitors or multiple monitor setups improves productivity. When it comes to reading, though, you have to make sure that the paragraphs you’re reading aren’t too wide. Yes, a 23-inch monitor can be handy, but not when you read blocks of text that stretch out across the entire screen.
  • Focus. Though this is more of a problem for CRT monitors than LCD ones, everyone who spends a lot of time reading on the computer should ensure that the text is in focus. Even slight blurring on the edges will strain your eyes, because they’ll attempt to correct the focus themselves.

Use Tools for Easier Reading

Apart from changing your monitor’s settings and position, you can also use tools that make online content easier to read. Many browser add-ons and extensions do this. Examples include the following:

  • Readability. This bookmarklet removes the clutter from text you’re reading online. You simply choose the style that’s easiest for you to read, then add the Readability button to your browser’s bookmark toolbar. Every time you click on the button, Readability will format the text on the current page in the style you selected.
  • TidyRead. TidyRead is a Firefox add-on similar to Readability, but it gives you the option to change style settings every time you use it. It also has a “Smart Mode” feature that detects article pages so that TidyRead is automatically activated when you open an article page. There’s also a version for Chrome.
  • Reading Glasses. This Chrome extension allows you to select the text you want to read and then lets the rest of the page become less visible. It prevents your eyes from being distracted by ads and other unnecessary clutter.
  • Reasy. Reasy is a browser add-on based on the concept of Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). This means that the text you’re reading will be presented to you one word at a time — kind of like flashcards. The benefit of this approach is that it increases reading speed. Reasy has versions for both Firefox and Chrome.
  • NoSquint. Apart from some minimal style edits on a page (such as text color and background), NoSquint is a Firefox add-on that lets you set zoom defaults for the sites you visit. Just as the name implies, you don’t have to squint to read small text or view fine details in the sites you visit.

Of course, none of these tools and techniques will really work if you constantly abuse your eyes. A previous post tackles how we can take better care of our eyes even if our workload requires a lot of online reading. By combining proper habits with the right tools, eyestrain and fatigue from online reading will no longer be an issue.

Share your eyestrain avoidance tips below.

Photo by flickr user Toms Bau?is, licensed under CC 2.0.

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